Naval Criminal Investigative Service agents never personally visited a Facebook page allegedly used by Marines to circulate photos of nude and partially clad female service members or accessed a Google drive filled with the images, the head of the investigation said.
Instead NCIS and Marine Corps officials are scraping together cases against hundreds of members of the "Marines United" page who allegedly disseminated or commented on the images by using secondhand evidence -- a trove of some 600 screenshots of the page and drive provided by a source.
In a briefing with reporters at the Pentagon Friday afternoon, NCIS Division Chief Curtis Evans highlighted the challenges of prosecuting internet offenders when evidence can be deleted in an instant and Facebook groups close and re-open faster than officials can identify them.
"In cyberspace, the evidence is there for one minute; the next minute it's gone," Evans said. "This is a 24-7 thing for us."
Evans also clarified numbers that have emerged in recent days and caused some confusion.
In a hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday, Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Robert Neller said he had been informed that about 500 individuals accessed a Google Drive full of nude images and identifying information for female troops. That figure was provided to Neller by journalist and Marine veteran Thomas Brennan, who got into the drive before its permissions were revoked and first reported on its contents, Brig. Gen. James Glynn, head of public affairs for Headquarters Marine Corps, told reporters.
Though the site had 30,000 members according to Brennan's report, the investigation is confined by what the screenshots show.
"None of us are on the inside of Marines United," Glynn said. "Thomas Brennan was. What he's provided in terms of support, to where we are able to investigate, we have no choice but to go with the numbers that he provided … this is what we have to work with. We don't have 30,000 to work with."
To date, Evans said, NCIS officials have used the screenshots to identify 725 active-duty Marines, 150 Marine reservists, 15 active-duty Navy personnel, and 310 non-military. While all were members of Marines United, he said, it's not yet clear that all participated in illegal or illicit activity on the site.
"From there, there's a limited amount of criminal intelligence in there that we launched criminal investigations on," he said.
To date, upwards of 20 self-identified victims of the non-consensual photo sharing have come forward to NCIS and the Marine Corps. A dedicated NCIS tipline has gotten hundreds of calls. Evans urged anyone with evidence of the page's activities to come forward and add to what so far appears to be incomplete evidence.
"We're specifically looking for individuals that had explicit photos taken without their consent and posted online," he said.
The investigation, Evans said, has now expanded to other groups and individuals unaffiliated with Marines United based on tips NCIS has received. The agency had also partnered with the Air Force Office of Special Investigation, the Army Criminal Investigative Decision, Coast Guard Investigative Service, and Marine Corps Criminal Investigative Division to go after all individuals in uniform found to have participated in related activity.
While the investigation is focused on nonconsensual photo dissemination, which is prohibited under the Uniform Code of Military Justice and in most states under "revenge porn" laws, Evans said NCIS is turning over evidence of Marines making disparaging and harassing comments about women to the Corps so offenders can be dealt with administratively.
NCIS has made multiple subpoena requests to internet providers for additional information, Evans said.
Meanwhile, the Marine Corps plans to conduct focus groups around the Marine Corps in coming weeks to address cultural issues at the root of the misogynistic internet behavior, Glynn said. The Marine Corps also plans to require every Marine to sign a form verifying that they have read and understand the Corps' new social media policy, which explicitly prohibits cyber-bullying and harassment and spells out legal penalties under the UCMJ.
While this step might not prevent Marines from acting abusively on social media, Glynn said, it will lessen the Marine Corps' burden of evidence to show that a Marine understood the rules if he or she faces disciplinary action.